Monday, August 13, 2012

A History of Iraq’s Islamic Dawa Party, Interview With Lowy Inst. for Intl. Policy's Dr. Rodger Shanahan

The Islamic Dawa Party was the first modern Islamist group to be formed in Iraq. It went through a long struggle with the Iraqi government that resulted in its banning by the Baathists, open warfare with Saddam Hussein’s regime, which forced it to go underground, and led many of its members to go into exile. Below is an interview with Dr. Rodger Shanahan, a former officer in the Australian army and senior adviser in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs. He is currently a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy who specializes in the Middle East. Dr. Shanahan goes through the history of the Dawa Party, and how that has shaped the worldview of Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

1. Many historians of Iraq point to the strength of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) as a motivation for Shiite lay persons and clerics to become active in the 1950s and 1960s. What was the size and strength of the Communists at the time, and why did they cause such a reaction in Iraqi society?
The growth of the Iraqi Communist Party in the 1950s spurred Shiite religious activism, which would help lead to the founding of the Dawa Party
Their size was less an issue than their influence, as it was a movement that appealed to the working class that sought social justice. As such it offered solutions to problems that the Shiite had traditionally faced: poor economic prospects, and lack of access to the levers of power. The ICP offered the type of political leadership that many Shiite would have welcomed from their quietist clerics. As a consequence, the numbers attracted to scholarly pursuits fell away drastically.

2. Another factor was the government of Abdul al-Karim Qasim. What was he doing in Iraq at the time that caused people to get active?

Qasim was a secularist who had good relations with the ICP.  It was more that Qasim earned the enmity of the clerics with actions such as his land reform measures that impacted on the traditional landlords, who were the main financial backers of the Shiite clergy.

3. The Dawa Party was founded in 1957 or 1958 as a result. It was closely connected to two young clerics of that time Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr and Mahdi al-Hakim. What were their roles?
Mohammed Baqir al-Sadr helped shape the ideas of the Dawa Party when it was formed (Wikipedia)
The exact events surrounding the formation of the party are inexact, however both al-Hakim and as-Sadr were amongst its founders. As-Sadr was the intellectual force behind the nascent movement and wrote its statutes. Al-Hakim, as the son of the leading marja' (grand ayatollah) of the day lent religious authority to the group, and was also considered by some as a member of the party even before as-Sadr.

4. Sadr wrote two important pieces that helped shape the policies of the Dawa, 1975’s Islamic Political System and 1979’s Preliminary Legal Note on the Project of a Constitution for the Islamic Republic. What were the main points of those writings?

These were important works in that they set out, in at least a publicly digestible way, principles of governance; the sovereignty of God, Islam as the basis of legislation, the people entrusted with legislative and executive powers, and the clerics confirming legislative and executive actions. The Preliminary Note must be seen against the backdrop of the Iranian revolution, and more clearly enunciates a model for governance delineating the relationship between the Islamic judiciary, the legislature and the executive, an elected president confirmed by the marjaiya (clerical establishment), and an elected parliament that confirms the appointed cabinet.

5. Who did the Dawa Party appeal to when it was initially formed?

Initially, it was a creation of clerical members of the Najaf hawza (seminaries) however it soon attracted lay Islamists to whom leadership passed as there were some within the hawza who disagreed with their activism, as well as a fear that clerics being too close to the party might have provided the government with an excuse to come down heavily on the hawza.  

6. In 1968 Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr and the Baathists came to power. What was their policy towards the Dawa party?

As secularists, the Baathists saw Shiite political activity as antithetical to their ideological and political interests. They gradually increased pressure on Shiite political activists through arrests and closures of educational institutions.

7. How did the Iranian Revolution influence the Dawa Party?

As with all Islamist groups, the revolution showed what was possible through popular action under the guidance of an 'alim (a leading cleric).  Ayatollah Khomeini tried to portray himself as a pan-Islamic leader, but was unable to do so for a number of ideological and political reasons. Nevertheless, amongst co-religionists the revolution was a great fillip for those who advocated militancy in the face of unjust rule. 

8. Wouldn’t the Iranian Revolution go on to create one of the first factional splits within Dawa?

Not immediately. Once the party was proscribed, many Dawa members sought sanctuary in Iran. The Iranians for their part were keen to convert the Shiite Islamist Dawa members to their concept of vilayat al-faqih or governorship of the jurist. Those that agreed formed the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iran (SCIRI) under the noted Iraqi jurist Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, while many others stayed loyal to the more secular Islamist Dawa, and eventually moved on to other places of exile such as Syria, Kuwait, and the UK. 

9. In 1979, the Dawa Party decided to take up armed struggle against the government. Why did they do that, and what was the government’s response?

It was in response to the continued repression it was suffering at the hands of the Iraqi government, and inspired by the success of the Iranian revolution. Armed struggle became an option, and a military wing was formed in 1979.  In response, the government proscribed ad-Dawa, and large numbers of its members were arrested, imprisoned, executed or exiled. 

10. How did some of the Dawa members in Lebanon end up being connected to Hezbollah?

As advocates of clerical activists' roles in political action, some Lebanese members of Dawa had returned home, and faced a Lebanese political party, Amal that was becoming increasing secular after the disappearance of its founder Musa Sadr. The notion of a more activist Shiite grouping was alive in Lebanon, and Dawa members were experienced in such a path. At the same time, Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon provided an opportunity for Iran to support its co-religionists there by helping to form Hezbollah. Dawa members became obvious candidates to help it form in its early days. 

11. In the 1980s the Dawa made some prominent attempts upon the life of Saddam and his son Uday. Can you explain the impact of those?

The proscription signaled the beginning of open warfare between ad-Dawa and the government, and as a consequence senior members of the regime were targeted. An unsuccessful assassination attempt was launched against Tariq Aziz in 1980, against Saddam Hussein in 1982 and 1987, and the 1996 attempt against Saddam's son Uday.

12. During this time Nouri al-Maliki went into exile, first in Iran, and then in Syria. What were some of his jobs in Damascus?

Nouri al-Maliki served as the leader of the Dawa branch in Syria, and was one of the rotating chairs of the Joint Action Committee, the umbrella organization of the Iraqi opposition groups.  He maintained close ties with Iran and pro-Iranian groups, and lived in Iran for eight years prior to his time in Syria.

13. After the 2003 fall of Saddam, Dawa Party members started returning to Iraq and faced rivals like the Sadrists and the Supreme Council. What were some of the differences between those three parties?

Ad-Dawa are best described as secular Islamists, who eschewed the Iranian concept of vilayat al-faqih in favor of technocratic rule. The Sadrists are a much more populist Shiite Islamist grouping who source their major support from the poor who were formerly the mainstay of ad-Dawa’s support. The Supreme Council is a Shiite Islamist party, allowing clerics to actively participate in politics and recognizing a single marja (the Iranian Supreme Leader) rather than the multiplicity that ad-Dawa allow.

14. It seemed like Dawa took the Sadrists as their main rival. Is that true, and if so why?

Only in the populist sense. It was felt that Muqtatda Sadr's desire for confrontation with the Americans was injurious to the broader goals of the Shiite community, which was to turn the community's numerical strength into political power.

15. What was Dawa’s early response to the American presence and their plans for Iraq?

Ad-Dawa had always sought to portray itself as an independent Iraqi actor, staying outside U.S.-sponsored opposition groupings for example. The reality of the U.S. invasion, and the understanding that it would lead to their long-term goal of governance meant that they participated in the Interim Governing Council, but were always at the forefront of advocating the earliest handover of political authority to Iraqis and the swift withdrawal of U.S. forces.

16. The Dawa Party has pushed for a strong central government and technocratic rule. Why have they advocated those policies?

In order to ensure that Iraq was ruled in accordance with the tenets of Islam, they favored a much stronger central government than others who were more in favor of a weaker government. Arguments for technocratic rule were the fact that they did not fully support the notion of an activist clergy relying on a single marja' who stood above all others.

17. You wrote in 2004 that there were questions about whether the Dawa Party was willing to accept a democratic form of government. What were some of the problems Dawa had with their ideology and the new political system?

Obviously in a multi-sectarian parliament their concept of what an Islamic government looks like has had to be modified extensively.

18. Overall, how do you think the history of the Dawa party and his years in exile affected the worldview of Nouri al-Maliki?

In many ways it narrowed it. Only a statesman is able to separate himself from his past experience for the greater good, and there are few of those in the Arab world. Maliki's experience of repression under Saddam, and his knowledge of Iran has resulted in a rather narrow view of power and governance. He sees ad-Dawa as the ones who sacrificed the most, and thus who deserve the most. He understands the realities of Iran and likely has gratitude for hosting him, but understands, given the establishment of SCIRI, that Iran seeks influence in Iraq commensurate with what it sees are its interests.

19. Do you see any specific policies that Maliki has followed as Iraq’s prime minister that can be directly connected to this history?

It could be argued that his increasing centralization of executive and military power is designed to ensure that he is protected from his enemies.


Anderson, Liam and Stansfield, Gareth, The Future Of Iraq, Dictatorship, Democracy, or Division? Palgrave McMillan: New York, Houndmills, 2005

Farouk-Sluglett, Marion and Sluglett, Peter, Iraq Since 1958, From Revolution To Dictatorship, I.B. Tauris Publishers: London, New York, 2003

Marr, Phebe, The Modern History Of Iraq, Westview Press: Colorado, Oxford, 2004


Shanahan, Rodger, “The Islamic Da’wa Party: Past Development and Future Prospects,” Middle East Review of International Affairs, June 2004

- “Shi’a political development in Iraq: the case of the Islamic Da’wa Party,” Third World Quarterly, 2004

Tripp, Charles, A History of Iraq, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, Sao Paulo, Delhi, 2008

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